Food & Drink

INTERVIEW: Chef Erik Bruner-Yang of Toki Underground

by Powell Bernhardt

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Since 2011, Toki Undergroud has been dishing out palate-pleasing Taiwanese ramen and dumplings in the District. With epic wait times, awards including Washington City Paper’s 2013 “Best Chef” and Eater DC’s 2012 “Restaurant of the Year”, and Food and Wine’s “The People’s Best New Chef: Mid-Atlantic” nomination, Chef Erik Bruner-Yang is one of the hottest names in the DC food industry and beyond.  Recently, I sat down at one of Washingtonian Magazine’s “100 Very Best Restaurants” for a little Q & A with Chef Bruner-Yang.

So how does it feel to go from being a guitarist in Pash to becoming a rock star in the food industry in such a short time?  

It’s funny because people talk more about the band now then when I was in it.  We really weren’t that popular.  We were just playing for a long time. So, it’s nice obviously to be recognized in anything that you are doing.  It was a great learning curve because you have this desire to entertain which a restaurant does, as well.  But, people can understand food more than music.  I think it’s just an easier thing to understand.

At Toki, we’re very lucky to have started when we did.  We were able to set our foot down as the first ramen shop in the District.  I think that has played a large part in our success. And we just happen to be as consistent as we can be.

How did that experience prepare you for the restaurant industry?

Definitely a lot of weird hours.  But, you constantly have to have really great interactions with people you‘ve never met before.  We do that on a daily basis which is really close to touring.  With Pash, I booked a lot of the shows, coordinated the tours and the hotels, and stuff like that.  So, that was kind of like a little dip into the business side of the music world.  We had a small record deal and we did play a lot.  Our goal was to do it for a living and that’s how we wanted to treat it.  And when you take that approach to music, it just requires a lot of hard work, if you aren’t getting lucky.  And we weren’t getting lucky.

I must commend your taste in music.  Every time I come here the music is so dope.  Who selects the tracks on the nightly playlist?

It’s mostly me but Brian Weitz helps picks the music too.  It’s a seasonal mood; whatever the day is like.  I used to be much better about making playlists all the time but I’m super behind in the music scene. Sometimes, I feel like my playlists are kind of dated.

But, that probably works with the current vintage/retro trend in music and culture.

How was collaborating with Woodberry Kitchen at the Sweetlife Festival this past weekend?

What they do over there at Woodberry Kitchen is super incredible!  The food culture, how hard everyone works, how they treat their ingredients, and how they order.  We did all of our prep at Woodberry Kitchen.  To be there and be a part of it was really amazing.  This is the third time we’ve done something with them.  I love Chefs Spike, George, Sarah, Corey, and all the other people over there.  Man, it was awesome!  Not only was the festival great because, Laura, the organizer did a great job.  But to be able to do that with them was a great experience.

How did that collaboration come about?

First, there would be no way that Toki would be able to handle doing the VIP because we have such a small crew.  We reached out to them to see if they wanted to do the experience with us and they were all about it!!  Chef Spike, Chef George, and I went back and forth about what we wanted to make and just did it.

I heard you put together some phenomenal dishes.  But who was your favorite artist there?

This year we didn’t get to enjoy like last year.  We were so close to the Treehouse Stage, so we got to see all those bands.  When the headliners were playing, we were the busiest.  But, I did notice that half of my crew dipped when Kendrick [Lamar] played.

I’m from outside of Philly, a true foodie city in my opinion because of the variety offered at all price points.  For so long, I felt DC was missing great food for people that didn’t want to spend their entire paycheck.  What led you to bringing minimal to moderately priced Taiwanese to DC?  

I moved to NE DC in ’07.  I still live behind the restaurant.  I wouldn’t have opened up this restaurant anywhere except for H Street.  It’s where my home is and thats the same reason why were are doing Maketto on H Street.  This is where I want to be, this is where I live, and I owe a lot of my success to the people who got us going.  The H Street corridor used to be such a small knit community.  Just like for you its reminiscent of all those little small places in Philly.  I always loved playing in Fishtown.  There are so many little divey places with some much culture.  I think that we kind of have that.  Correlating to what’s happening on H Street, I think better represents the changes in Philly.  Although people like to compare this area to Brooklyn, it feels like Philly.  It’s a little bit dirtier, the concepts are a little bit more out there, and it doesn’t seem that any of us should be doing business but, we are.

And you’re doing well.  When you first envisioned Toki Underground, what did you see?

We definitely thought it was going to be more casual.  I mean it is casual but..[pauses] And I knew we were going to be busy but I never thought it was going to be this busy.  I think we have really good service but, I never thought it was going to be this serious.  I mean, a noodle shop is you get it, eat it, and go.  But the staff here wanted to take service to another level; where you can have low cost dinner with a high standard of service.

With other ramen shops popping up in the city, how do you see Toki evolving to stay fresh and current?

That’s a really tough one because we are in the wave.  Are we in the beginning, the middle, or end?  That’s the risk you take in business.  Right now, we are determining where we are and how much do we want to reinvest into what we are doing.  Do we keep the small humble shop? Do we add more Toki Undergrounds? Or do we just re-do this one and take it to another level?  That’s where we are right now.

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In Korean, Toki means rabbit.  Of all animals that you could have chosen to represent your restaurant, why did you choose an anime rabbit?

It rolled off the tongue the best.  Coincidentally, we opened in the year of the rabbit.  My grandmother was born in the year of the rabbit.  So it all kind of made sense in the end.

And what animal would represent Maketto? 

Maketto would be more like an amoeba; like a strand of DNA.

Tell me a little more about your upcoming venture.

Maketto was never really part of our timeline or my growth and my progression.  The landlords and the property owners came to us (i.e., Chef Bruner-Yang and his partner from DURKL) and wanted us to help develop something there. What we really wanted to work on was how can we transport that night market experience in Asia to a physical building with different levels  and make it feel modern yet cultural.

I think that was one of my favorite parts of traveling in Asia…the food experience.  Whether you’re at a hawker or posh restaurant the overall freshness, quality, and variety can’t be beat. How do you plan to capture that aspect?

Conceptually that isn’t much different than what we do already.  Every time you come to Maketto, we hope that there is something there that you haven’t experienced before.   The color and the vibrance of it is going to come from the retail component.  And it’s going to smell, sound, taste and be accessible like an Asian night market.

Is the food going to be more traditional or a modern interpretation? 

The foods are going to be more traditional.  It’s like, if you wanted to take your parents to a night market but couldn’t take them all the way to Thailand.

Seriously, though.  Looking at the corporate takeover in Chinatown and the rapid expansion of construction here…Are you afraid of what H Street might become in the next 5-10 years?

It definitely is going to get that way.  Unfortunately, that is the nature of things.  Fourteenth Street has managed to reel that in and thats even going to change now.  But that’s just the nature and production of life.

I know you are partnering with Vigilante coffee.  What happens when a Starbucks gets built next door?  

The good thing is that there are always hundreds of people that need coffee [laughs]. But thats the risk you take in life.  We’ll be here before Starbucks because we are the one’s willing to take the risk.  And hopefully people will recognize that.

You seem like a throwback kind of guy who enjoys the simple things in life and has a relentless work ethic.  I’ve read that your grandfather was a major influence on your life.  What is the most valuable lesson that you learned from him that you utilize now? 

My grandfather was big on “my problems are not your problems”  and “you just have to keep doing what you have to do to get things done.” You are the only one that can solve them.   So no matter what is going on around you, you still have to be able to move forward.

It’s like a double-edged sword.  I think I’m amazing at filtering things but then you get this tunnel vision.  My grandfather was amazing at filtering and keeping the forward path.

I know you are just getting started but what do you want your legacy to be in the food industry on H Street, DC, and beyond?

Vietnamese and Korean families were able to survive in America from small businesses and younger kids kind of move away from that because that’s what their parents did.  I think that says a lot of the strength of the Asian communities by how much we have provided in the small business world.  But it’s not the path that our families intended for us because they struggled and they don’t want to see us struggle.

Hopefully, Asian kids from my generation will want to start more small businesses.  I think there is a lack of voice from Asian Americans and as we become a more unified group, I want to be a part of that transformation.

Last question…The Couch Sessions is primarily a music-based website so I have to wrap things up with a question on that topic.  What music artists and bands did you listen to during the different periods of your life?  

The first two bands that really got me into underground music in high school were the Dismemberment Plan and Heltah Skeltah.  I was dating an older girl at the time and Heltah Skeltah, D Plan, and the Pharcyde were on one of my mixtapes.

My late teens to early twenties was all indie rock: early Jimmy Eat World records, The Get Up Kids, early Rilo Kiley Records, and Denali.  That’s the stuff that I loved!

Now, it’s weird.  I’m kind of going backwards.  I’m into Tom Petty, Johnny Powers, and other classic artists.

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Chef Bruner-Yang is a humble dude producing anything but reserved food in the District.  I am truly thankful to have interviewed him and am looking forward to future foodgasms at Toki Underground and Maketto alike.  Always support good people doing good things.  Namaste.